November/December 2007

Sustainable Networks: The Next Challenge in International Earthquake Monitoring

Is there a “right” model for global, regional and local earthquake monitoring? It’s timely to ask that question because of a convergence of events and trends: the 2004 tsunami and the calls for enhanced early warning systems based on national and regional seismological networks, the growing strength of a private sector marketing turn-key solutions for regional and local earthquake monitoring, the capitalization of these systems by nations with assistance from international development organizations, and the continuing and growing recognition that knowledge of seismicity and ground motions, and their geographic relationship to human assets, are essential components of earthquake risk management. This has resulted in the procurement and deployment of national networks and the expansion of global networks into critical underserved regions at an almost unprecedented rate. Additionally, the relative ease with which portable arrays can be deployed over interesting geological targets has engendered the current era of experimental seismology and has given seismologists a scientific and technical platform supporting international research and education collaborations. When these are combined with the existing “permanent” global and regional network deployments, the amount of broadband information being collected is staggering.

The focus on getting data to the end-user leads to an obvious question: As more networks come online, is the community doing enough to ensure their sustainability?

Domenico Giardini, who until recently led the Federation of Digital Seismological Networks (FDSN), gave a presentation at the last Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) workshop that opened the eyes of many in the audience to the status of global and regional seismic monitoring. It may be fair to say that the way in which the global infrastructure for data management—with leadership from IRIS, Observatories and Research Facilities for European Seismology (ORFEUS), and other organizations—has become embedded in the profession’s day-to-day interactions with data has masked the real work that has gone into integrating the data outputs from different networks, let alone the massive effort that has gone into getting instruments into vaults. The focus on getting data to the end-user leads to an obvious question: As more networks come online, is the community doing enough to ensure their sustainability?

Getting funding for establishing a network is one thing. We’ve seen networks and warning systems established in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and many countries exposed to earthquake hazards have built new, or reinforced existing, network operations with new capital investment from domestic and international sources. Indonesia’s efforts deserve special mention. But transitioning from the initial interest in new deployments to the important task of continued operations, production of useful data products, and integration with the emergency management and disaster risk reduction constituencies is another matter entirely. In our view, not enough attention is being paid to this “transition to sustainability.”

On one level, this shouldn’t be a problem. The decades-long investments by members of the FDSN in global and regional monitoring have provided a distributed, multiscale technological and communications infrastructure— with both hardware and software components— that in theory and practice could be the basis for porting existing networks into a globally consistent monitoring regime and providing capacity for new partners to initiate or elevate monitoring operations. In other words, with minor exceptions, there are no technical barriers to operating a network and sharing data under a global-regional-national-local monitoring continuum. But there are political and capacity limitations. The political considerations can be broadly characterized in terms of scientific sovereignty and national security issues, which should be discussed in other forums. The capacity limitations are of two types: 1) the continuation of investment in the operations and maintenance of newly established networks, and 2) having the in-country academic, technical and institutional capacity to provide effective management, oversight, data products, and engagement with local end-users. These capacity limitations are intertwined with sustainability. Investments build capacity, and capacity generates the interest in continuing the investments.

Capacity building in science and technology is viewed skeptically in a few quarters. Cooperation has improved recently in some cases—such as Malaysia’s joining the ranks of national networks using the IRIS Data Management Center to freely exchange data—but the unfortunate stereotype of firstworld scientific imperialism has some basis in past reality. A different approach involves fostering regional cooperation in monitoring operations combined with long-term research and education collaborations. Good examples are Andy Nyblade’s AfricaArray program partially funded by NSF, the Protocol for Scientific and Technical Cooperation in Earthquake Studies coordinated by the NSF, the USGS and the China Earthquake Administration, and the USGS’s foreign training and risk assessment programs in Menlo Park and Golden, funded in part by USAID. The limited duration seismological experiments carried out by many investigators using portable instrumentation could provide other examples, but too often funding ends just as their potential for supporting capacity-building efforts is being realized. Still, our sense is that international development programs linked to earthquake hazard reduction are not yet taking full advantage of the global seismological infrastructure established so meticulously over the past 25 years by academic consortia and government institutions, most notably the IRIS/ USGS GSN, GEOSCOPE, GEOFON, MEDNET and the other networks making up the FDSN. In particular, the case for real-time seismological monitoring as a component of natural hazard risk management and the role of existing global infrastructure has not resonated within the international development organizations, especially at the development banks. The international convening power of academic consortia such as IRIS, the hand-in-glove relationships they have with operational, mission-oriented agencies such as the USGS, and the promise of a fully functional FDSN, ought to be starting points for designing coordinated investments that build the capacity for collecting high-fidelity seismological data, and link continued scientific and educational collaborations to sustained, regional budgets for operations, maintenance, and useful data products.

To make progress, we suggest: leveraging existing international scientific collaborations to form or strengthen regional multistate monitoring agreements; identifying constituencies needing an evidence base for risk management policies and bringing them into the research and education enterprise; promoting shared data and open data exchange through the removal of technical barriers and promotion of linked data centers; building a culture of standards-driven data collection and quality control by promoting wide use of the data by researchers as well as operators; engaging the academic community in more structured international training and educational programs; and providing open-source software and system support tuned to local needs. All of this could lead to capacity building through community building—led by the science and the link between science and improved hazard risk management—and the concomitant introduction of development organizations to the promise and possibilities of existing seismological infrastructure including sustained, and sustainable, monitoring. 

Arthur Lerner-Lam
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Email- lerner [at] ldeo.columbia.edu

Ray Willemann
Email- ray [at] iris.edu


To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, you may contact the SRL editor by sending e-mail to <lastiz [at] ucsd.edu>.




Posted: 01 November 2007